The debate about Mushroom Tinctures vs Powdered Extracts is a longstanding one, especially now with various mushroom products are now available as health supplements. Although they might be sold with disclaimers about not being intended to treat, prevent, or cure disease, these substances are generally marketed under the implicit assumption that they will be used to treat, prevent, or cure disease anyway; they are popular alternative medicines regardless of the disclaimer.
Many mushroom species have been shown to contain substances with medicinal potential, and some have successfully treated or prevented certain diseases in experimental animals—though very few have been clinically tested in humans. Even fewer have been approved for use as medicine, putting most medicinal mushrooms in a hazy category where scientific research supports their effectiveness but does not actually prove it yet.
But assuming a given mushroom does have medicinal power, how should a consumer go about using the medicine? Embracing alternative medicine means doing without certain safeguards—quality can vary widely, and labeling can be unreliable. So what can a person look for?
It turns out that one of the most important details to look at is the process by which the mushroom product was made[i]. Fungal cells are strengthened by chitin, a substance we humans cannot digest well. Many people cannot digest chitin at all, meaning that when we eat intact fungal cells, those cells (and any medicinal substances inside them) exit our bodies as waste still intact, like unopened presents.
The key is to process the mushroom so as to break down the chitin and make what’s inside those cells bioavailable[ii]. And only some manufacturing processes will do the trick.
What are Tinctures?
Tinctures are similar to teas except that instead of soaking something in hot water to release its flavor and other constituents, the thing is soaked in alcohol (or sometimes vinegar)[iii]. The method works well in herbal medicine, because many (not all) medicinal substances in plants are soluble in alcohol, and alcohol can break down cellulose, freeing whatever is held inside the plant cells. Tinctures are much more concentrated than teas, making them a convenient way to take herbs—especially herbs that don’t taste very good as tea.
Unfortunately, alcohol does not break down chitin, so technically “mushroom tincture” is a bit of an oxymoron; tinctures are extracts, but the process of tincturing won’t extract anything from fungal tissues.
Products sold as mushroom tinctures are either the result of attempting to tincture mushrooms (i.e., mostly mushroom-flavored alcohol), or they are some other kind of mushroom product diluted in alcohol. In either case, the product has little to no bioavailable medicinal substance. While it is possible to make a bioavailable liquid mushroom extract (powdered extracts always go through a liquid stage in production), such a product would be much more dilute than a powdered extract. In fact, most liquid mushroom products on the market are not bioavailable.
What Are Powdered Extracts?
Powdered mushroom extracts are, ideally, the result of a multi-step process that breaks down the chitin. These are distinct from powders that are simply dehydrated and pulverized raw mushroom tissue—those are not bioavailable. The form of the product, powder or liquid, is not important. What is important is bioavailability. However, bioavailable extracts are generally powders (often packed into pills).
Powdered extract production begins with making a hot water extract (a tea) in a pressurized container. The heat melts the chitin. The pressure prevents some otherwise volatile medicinal substances from evaporating in the heat. Sometimes a second extraction process using alcohol follows the first—once the chitin has been melted, the alcohol picks up substances that are not water-soluble and would otherwise be left behind. Then, the liquid is concentrated and finally dried into powder.
Why Are Powdered Mushroom Extracts Better than Tinctures?
Powdered mushroom extracts are bioavailable and concentrated. Tinctures are usually neither and never both.
Again, the issue is not that the product is in a powder; raw, whole mushroom can also be sold dried and powdered, but in most cases is nearly useless from a health perspective. Most people cannot digest raw mushroom because of the issue with chitin, and most mushroom species are not concentrated foods—even if properly cooked, serving sizes have to be very large for most mushrooms to deliver significant nutritional value, let alone medicinal value. The medicinally-important substances are usually present only in small quantities. There is a reason why virtually all studies showing medicinal effectiveness of mushrooms have used concentrated extracts, not whole mushroom.
Unfortunately, no supplement is going to be labeled “not bioavailable,” or anything else similarly useful. In fact, vague terms, such as “high bioavailability,” or “full spectrum,” or “high quality” are perfectly legal to put on any sort of product. Identifying which products are the real deal can be challenging—the key is to look for detailed ingredient lists that include breakdowns of the specific medicinal substances involved. Purveyors pf low-quality products either can’t provide such information (their production process may be such that their product is inconsistent), or do not want to provide it because it would make them look bad.
It’s important to recognize that fungi are not plants and that the “rules” for recognizing strength and quality for herbal products may not apply to mushrooms. Herbal tinctures are fine, mushroom tinctures are not. Measures of quality familiar from herbal medicine also sometimes appear on mushroom-based products, despite being irrelevant, as a means to distract from poor quality. It is perfectly legal to put irrelevant information on packaging; it’s up to the customer to avoid being misled.
On a related subject, not all powdered mushroom extracts are quality, in part because not all fungi are alike. While it is common enough to use “mushroom” as a synonym for “fungus” is most contexts (and the word has been used that way for much of this article), technically the word “mushroom” refers only to the fruiting body and not to the mycelial network that gives rise to the fruiting body. In some species, the entire fungus—the mycelium and its fruiting bodies—contain medicinal substances, but in others only the fruiting body does. In others, only the mycelium contains those substances. Some products are made from the wrong part of the fungus, or they may include both mushroom and mycelium even if the species in question doesn’t invest both with medicine. The key here is to understand what one is buying and not to be taken in by advertising.
So quality medicinal mushroom products are almost always extract powders, but that does not mean all powders, or even all extract powders, are quality. The key is to become an educated buyer and to read labels carefully.
So which Mushroom Supplement is Best?
This is a bit of a loaded question. However; either a dual extract or a hot water extracted mushroom supplement is almost always the best. A tincture, tea or a mycelium based supplement is never best. You almost always want a hot water extracted mushroom supplement that states Beta-D-Glucans on the label. My favorite Mushroom Supplements are sold by Noomadic Herbals. You can see all their Mushrooms for sale on their website.
[i] (2016). What You Should Know Before Buying Mushroom Supplements. Medicinal Mushrooms
[ii] (2017). Bioavailability of Medicinal Mushroom Supplements